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Schoolyard bullying in Japan leads to rash of student suicides

NAGANO, Japan—The sixth-grade girl was found early one morning hanging from an overhead screen in her classroom. She left seven separate envelopes for her classmates, mother and school authorities, each decorated with a teddy bear, balloon or other cute picture.

"Did you guys hate me? Was I weird?" asked one letter to her classmates. "I could not trust most of you people."

The letter said classmates had ignored her for years.

"Somehow, no people are ever around me," it said, adding that bullying had escalated for the past three years.

Suicides of children who are bullied have been in the news in Japan recently as the nation grapples with what to do. Nagano, which hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics, has a group of activists trying to stop school bullying. Nationwide, the government has taken action to prevent schools from turning a blind eye when children and teens are tormented by their peers.

The 12-year-old who left the decorated notes was carried unconscious from Ebeotsu Elementary School on the northern island of Hokkaido to a local hospital. She never recovered and died four months later on Jan. 6.

Although the girl left letters describing her feelings, the principal of the school, Kunitoshi Kawae, and the school council chief, Nobuo Tatsumi, wouldn't admit that bullying played a role in her death or even that it was a suicide rather than an accident.

Frustrated by the stonewalling, relatives alerted the news media this fall.

Japanese newspapers and television revealed the case Oct. 1, saying the school concealed the bullying. The reports triggered an avalanche of more than 2,000 letters of protest to the school, forcing Kawae to admit that bullying might have been part of the reason for the suicide.

Publicity about the student, known only as Yoko (not her real name), triggered similar suicides. More than 10 youngsters between the ages 10 and 17 have killed themselves since Oct. 1, leaving wills, e-mails or notes hinting that they, too, had been bullied.

The Ministry of Education says it has received at least 32 handwritten letters since Nov. 6 from students saying they're also considering suicide.

The spate of recent suicides has spurred Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government to act on schoolyard bullying. On Nov. 29, as Abe looked on, the Education Rebuilding Council called for clearer standards for punishing student bullies. The panel recommended that teachers who turn a blind eye to bullying be disciplined and that pupils who want to change schools because of bullying be allowed to do so.

Japanese law bars primary and middle schools from expelling students who bully or tease schoolmates. Even suspensions are rare. Of the 464 suspensions at middle schools in the past decade, only 24 cases involved bullying, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper reported last month.

Experts say concealment of bullying is part of a crisis in the educational system, leaving school administrators trying to save face.

"Pressure on the teachers is getting stronger and stronger," said Manabu Sato, a professor in the graduate school of education at the University of Tokyo.

In recent years, teachers routinely work Saturdays and Sundays for club activities and stay at schools past 8 p.m. nightly to finish administrative work.

"Parents, teachers and children ... all are stressed," Sato said.

In the past two months, three teachers and principals have killed themselves, one because he didn't stop a case of bullying.

In Nagano, relatives and friends of teen victims have taken action.

Noriyoshi Maejima's only son, Yusaku, committed suicide when he was in junior high in 1997, unable to cope with bullying and taunting.

"It was way more horrible than violence," the 13-year-old Yusaku wrote in a note.

"It was as if I lost a big pillar in my heart," the 52-year-old Maejima recalled. "My daughter said, `Dad, you did not really listen to Yusaku!'"

Maejima said that his son, then 8, once sought his advice on how to help a boy being bullied at school. The father suggested that his son leave school with the schoolmate in a show of solidarity.

The boy whom Yusaku helped has now established Save our Bullied Friends, which holds talks about bullying at elementary and junior high schools.

Now 23, Yutaka Okamoto often tells students of the pain he feels over not returning the favor that Yusaku once extended to him.

"I could not sense that Yusaku was bullied when he said he could not sleep well," Okamoto remembered. Yusaku was a member of a basketball team and was well regarded, he said.

Okamoto said bullying often is done unconsciously. "Most students believe what they are doing is not so bad to be considered `bullying,'" he said, noting that some students write to him after his talks to admit that they'd engaged in bullying.

Some believe cultural traits may exacerbate the severe schoolyard teasing.

"In Japan, if you help your friend, you will be the next target of the bullies. So friends stay quiet," said Kim Chul Hun, a Korean father who lives in Japan and sends his son to a Japanese elementary school. "Japanese culture is to try not to create conflict. Don't put up opposition. ... In Korea, to fight is a virtue and a good thing."

Japanese culture stresses "wa," or harmony, and non-confrontation with others.

Yet some parents think that as schools fail to own up to the bullying that occurs and as offenders are let off the hook, a vicious cycle is created.

Maejima, the bereaved father, has been selected by the Nagano Prefectural Board of Education to lead a team mediating between schools and students on a confidential basis. Every day, he visits students at their homes, more than 600 so far.

"There is no good bullying and no reason for fair bullying," he said.

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(Doi is a McClatchy special correspondent in Tokyo.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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